A few minutes before 10:30 a.m., the men from four gold dealing firms walked up the marble steps at N.M. Rothschield and Sons at New Court St. Swithin's Lane.

As they entered the oak-panelled room on the second floor, they were greeted by Robert Guy, a Rothschield director. The five barely glanced at the portraits on the wall, Francis I of Austria, Frederick William III of Prussia, Empress Alexandria - all past clients or borrowers from Rothschild's bank.

When the black lacquered clock on the wall - built in 1692 but run electronically now - struck 10:30, Guy proposed a price at which the day's gold trading would formally begin.

Several dealers then raisde to an upright position the small Union Jacks lying on their sides in front of them. This was a signal to stop the conference while hurried calls were made on the open telephone lines to their offices.

Guy might have proposed $203 a troy ounce - about 10 percent heavier than a conventional ounce - a price he calculated would nicely balance the boy and sell orders coming to Rothschild's earlier this morning.

He would look around the room to make sure there were both buyers and sellers at that price. If there were only buyers, he would raise it: if there were only sellers, he would lower it.

Guy found both buyers and sellers. So he quietly called out, "figures, gentlemen."

The man from Mocatta and Goldsmid might offer to buy 40 bars - 40 thin gold wafers, each of 3.75 troy or 4.11 conventional ounces. Samuel Montague could propose selling 80 bars. But the man from Sharps, Pixley and Johnson, Matthey might each want 30 bars themselves. At $203 demand is 100 and supply 80.

That ceremony is observed twice daily during the business week. A second fixing is at three, just as the stock market opens in New York, five hours behind London. This has been a quiet day, and the afternoon fixing was again at $203.25.

Most of the buying and selling arranged by the five dealers here is done in their own trading rooms, over the telephone or on the telex. The price each dealer quotes rises and falls, depending on the flow of orders, on supply and demand.

The bullion dealers solemnly insist they do not rig anything that they are merely sensitive transmitters of instructions from a market, simply earning commissions by bringing together buyer and seller.

No one, however, can be certain, the Bank of England exercises only the loosest of supervision over the dealers. There is no regulatory body like the SEC here. No one except the five principals sit in Rothschild's gold room.

Their fixing price is flashed all over the world and serves as a guide to the buy and sell offers coming to the dealers. Among other places, it goes to Zurich where three more dealers operate a close-knit cartel that may do even more trading than London. It also goes to Moscow and Pretoria, capitals of the two nations that supply the world's gold.

Unlike stock and other U.S. markets, dealers here refuse to say how much business they do. One estimates that the renewed interest in gold in recent weeks has created about twenty tons, each of 2.205 pounds, of trading a day. That would mean a daily turnover of about $140 million at the current price.

This must please the Russians and South Africans who are feeding the world only six or seven tons daily.

The five are equally mysterious about their clients. In a market of rising prices, they likes to say demand is coming from everywhere - Middle East Sheiks, New York banks, Japanese trading houses and rich investors in Paris.

Treasurers of multinational corporations pile up lots of cash each day but are said to have stayed out of gold up to now. Banks are believed to be a major impetus behind the recent rise, although one of the big five suggests that his Swiss clients are strong in the market.

Governments also buy and sell gold from their reserves. They are not thought to have been active, however, in the recent runup that carried gold above $200 for the first time.

The bullion dealers have no idea where gold - and, conversely - the dollar is headed, although they probably have a vested interest in forecasting further rises in the metal. Their deals and commissions tend to increase as gold goes up. They also speculate in the stuff for their own accoutns.

But it is obvious to the dealers and anyone else that as long as Germany and Japan run huge supluses in their foreign trade and the U.S. a huge and offsetting deficit, dollars will be more abundant than marks and yen. So those two currencies at least will rise against the dollar.

As the dollar falls in international exchanges, a commodity whose supply is as carefully controlled as gold will rise in price.

The mystique that surrounds the yellow metal, investing it with some intrinsic value, aids this process.

At some point, the dealers and others understand, the fall in the dollar and the rise in the yen and mark will make U.S. exports cheaper and imports from Japan and Germany dearer. Deficit and surpluses will come into balance. But nobody can say where this point is and whether it will mean a higher or lower price for gold.

The dealers are convinced, however, that the day equilibrium is reached will be put off as long as inflation in the U.S. is well beyond that in Germany and Japan. The higher dollar price tags on U.S. exports wipe out the advantage from the fall in the dollar on currency markets.

With the U.S. suffering an inflation rate above ten percent and the other two safely below it, the point of equilibrium could well be still to come.